Samhain

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It’s almost Samhain, or as it’s better known today, Hallowe’en!

This has to be my favourite holiday, in both its Pagan and secular forms, of the year. There’s something magical about a night when even the most staid, “normal” people carve jack o’lanterns and hang skulls, bats and witches in their windows, or dress as ghosts and demons.

I love the way this time of year takes all those things that are dark and scary, things that mainstream society and religion tends not to talk about, and turns them from objects of fear into a carnival of colour, celebration and life. What better, what more cathartic, what more human way to face our fears of death and the unknown?

While I love the fun of Hallowe’en (and I will be decorating my home and handing out sweets to trick or treaters, and watching the Evil Dead trilogy), I also love the more thoughtful stillness of Samhain.

The two are very much connected of course, historically the Christian feast of “All Hallows” was placed right on top of the old Pagan festival of Samhain, but for me the two also have rather distinct characteristics. Where Hallowe’en is riotous, Samhain is quiet.

Samhain is a time to reflect on death: both that of those we have lost, and that of our own. I’m fairly active in the Death Positive community, so I probably think about this more than most, but I do believe that it is healthy and good to spend some time thinking deeply about mortality. I think that coming to terms with death, and learning to live with it rather than fear it and hide it away, is an important part of growing both individually and as a society, becoming more open and more responsive to life. Yes, thinking about death can make you appreciate life all the more.

Samhain can also be a time of letting go: of aspects of yourself or your life that are holding you back, or of any lingering guilt, anger or resentment harboured for ancestors who have died. It can be a time for forgiveness and healing.

And of course, it is the turning point of the year: the old Celtic new year, the night before the new dawn of the Winter Solstice.

So, go out and visit places of the dead: local churches and cemeteries are a great place to sit and reflect surrounded by memento mori. Enjoy dressing up and watching your favourite cheesy horror films, but spare a thought for ancestors, whether of blood, of land, or of inspiration, and in the Autumnal evening, be still.

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A poem for the season

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Grey dawn filters through the falling leaves,
Pale and soft as life’s last breath. The whisper
Of the wind carries not your voice, but your
Absence: cold, a shivering chill of recognition.
The moon’s time-wrinkled face outlasts its welcome;
In spite of us who cling to what remains. The day,
Short and half-hearted barely warms the soil,
Beneath which lie the hopes of ages past.
And if I call to you, who hears?
The dwindling forests, or the endless sky.
A day like any other, a thousand years ago,
Others and still others breathed the same.
A thousand years from now, a day like this again:
The cycle turns, the centre slowly fades.

Book review: Out of the Woods

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9781780722351Cohu, Will. Out of the Woods: the Armchair Guide to Trees. Short Books, 2007.

Out of the Woods is an unusual book. On the face of it, it’s a guide to trees, giving you the information you need to identify different species as you go for a walk, or even drive past them on the motorway.

But, as Will Cohu deliberately works to avoid technical descriptive terms that are confusing to the non-expert, and the book has very few pictures throughout (apart from a section in the middle), it is perhaps not the best book to use if you want a quick reference to actually identify a tree in front of you.

What Out of the Woods is, however, is a walk with a very knowledgeable and often quite funny travelling companion. It is literally structured this way, with Cohu addressing “you” the reader directly and taking “you” on a journey where you park your car and go for a walk in the woods with him. This is an unusual literary device, and one which took some getting used to, but after a while it does start to feel like a conversation.

Cohu’s descriptions of trees are colourful, and down-to-earth, while maintaining some evocative sense of the tree’s personality. Ash, for example, is described as having branches that are “hooked and tipped with black buds as if it were giving you the come-hither with a crooked finger ending in a filthy, unwashed nail”, while the Douglas Fir is “like the face of Pete Postlethwaite“.

As entertaining as these descriptions are, and they are fun, I’m not sure that they would actually help me identify an Ash or Douglas Fir or a Sycamore (which apparently has “unruly pubic hair”) in the wild. Perhaps I don’t have Cohu’s visual imagination.

Yet, the book is filled with interesting nuggets of information about not just the botany of trees, but their historic and social role in Britain, such as when they were introduced, what their wood was used for, folklore associated with them etc., all of which was fascinating to learn.

Each section ends with a little revision quiz to test what you’ve learned, which was a useful tool, although it did bring me out of the imaginary walk scenario.

Out of the Woods is a short enough book to work through in an afternoon or two and does make good reading on a rainy day when you can’t actually get outside to look at trees much.

If you seriously want to learn to identify trees, I would recommend you also get a tree guide like the Collins Tree Guide, which comes full of images and useful quick reference notes about the trees’ appearance. But if you want to go on a ramble with an interesting companion who  clearly has real affection for trees and woods, then Out of the Woods is worth a look.

Home shrine update: simplify

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My home shrine is the central focus point for my regular Druid practice. Here is where I meditate, work through my Gwersi, do small rituals and the like. It has evolved and changed over time as my Druidry has too.

Lately, I noticed the shrine was getting quite cluttered. The central tree wasn’t doing too well as a houseplant and needed moving outdoors. And I’d gathered all manner of stones, conkers, pine cones and stuff from my nature walks to put on there, which I like to do as a way of bringing the outdoors in, but after a while they had begun to look worse for wear and were gathering dust, so it was time for an update.

The state of the shrine was in its own way symptomatic of my practice lately. October has been a ridiculously busy month, and I haven’t had (or haven’t made) the time to keep to anything like a regular schedule.

My hope is that by clearing away a lot of the detritus, I can symbolically clear my mind too, and recommit to more regular practice. For inspiration, I turned to zen shrines as I wanted something of their simplicity.

Simplicity is sort of a key concept in my Druidry at the moment, and I wanted the shrine to reflect that. Some people like their shrines filled to bursting with statues, pentacles, crystals, candles, ogham staves and such, but I prefer sparse, almost stark, open space.

So, I have my lovely Tibetan singing bowl which was a gift from my wife, some tealight candles, a small stone shaped like a heart which was found on a beach in Norfolk (you can’t really see the heart shape in the pic, but it is pretty, and cool that it was naturally formed that way by wind and tide), a twig from the local woods and a blue ceramic water bowl that contains a seashell to connect it symbolically with the ocean. In keeping with zen tradition, I need to get better at changing the water every day instead of leaving it there to get all gross and weird.

In the centre is the Earth Dragon card from Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm’s Druid Animal Oracle, which I have in physical card-deck form and also as an app on my phone for daily readings. The Earth Dragon is there because I am currently working on connecting more with Earth as part of a “journey through the elements”. I’ll shift it out for the other elemental dragons as I go along.

I miss having a tree or a plant of some kind on the shrine, so I may look for a suitably hardy houseplant to replace it.

Simple. Clear. Thoughtful. A representation of how I want my Druidry to be in the world.

Myth and Meaning

sunset-1367138_960_720A version of this essay was originally published in “Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans” edited by John Halstead and published by Lulu, 2015. In light of some recent discussions about Paganism, faith and non-theism, it seemed appropriate to repost it here.

Myth and Meaning: A non-literal Pagan view of deity

“The phenomenon we call spirit depends on the existence of an autonomous primordial image which is universally present in the preconscious makeup of the human psyche”. -C.G. Jung, “The phenomenology of the spirit in fairytales”.

How can you be Pagan without believing in the gods?

This is a question frequently asked of atheist, agnostic and other non-theistic Pagans. In some corners of the Pagan community, the words “Pagan” and “Polytheist” are synonymous, and the idea of atheistic Pagans is literally unthinkable.

However, the Pagan community is, and has always been, diverse in its beliefs. One of the first books on Paganism I read, Paganism: an Introduction to Earth-Centered Religions, by Joyce and River Higginbotham, says:

“It’s not difficult to find statements made by both Pagans and non-Pagans that Pagans are polytheistic. This can be true, but it isn’t necessarily true. What is true for Paganism as a whole is that Pagans may believe anything they wish about Deity. Certain Pagan traditions may adopt specific beliefs, but those beliefs operate only within that tradition and do not carry over to Paganism as a whole”.

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Becoming a Bard

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This post from Nimue at Druid Life is a great bit of practical advice for anyone interested in pursuing a “Bardic” path in some form, and especially useful for those of us who are “Bardically challenged” like me!

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How do you go from being a person who does not perform, to being a fabulous bard with a song or poem up their sleeve for every occasion and who can give a dazzling performance in any space? It may seem like an impossible leap. I’m going to start running a thread about techniques and tactics for becoming a bard. I’ve been a performer for a good twenty years, but I’ve also run spaces where I’ve been able to help people cross this threshold. I’ve got a fair amount of experience to draw on, and a desire to help as many people as I can realise that even though yes, it is a big, intimidating looking step, it is also an entirely feasible step to take.

You probably weren’t one of the kids cast in lead roles for school productions. You probably weren’t chosen for solos in the choir –…

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Nwyfre

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The word Nwyfre, which I mention in my previous post, comes from an old Welsh term meaning “sky” or “heaven”. In Druidry, however, it takes on a deeper meaning, and one which deserves a bit of thought.

Nwyfre can be seen as the “life force” of nature, the energy or power which moves through and within all things and holds all things together, both living beings and things which we usually think of as non-living such as rocks, streams, mountains and the land itself.

Nwyfre is not, I hasten to point out, a scientific concept like gravity or the weak and strong nuclear forces which, in a very real way, do move all things and hold the universe together. Like most things in Druidry, it is a poetic, mythic, archetypal concept by which we can connect to nature in an holistic way, involving the body and the emotions as well as the rational mind. Of course, one could argue that the fundamental physical forces recognised by science are themselves manifestations of Nwyfre, in a sort of “theory of everything” way, but I’m not going to go there in this post.

If the idea of Nwyfre sounds familiar, but the name does not, then that may be because you’ve encountered it in another context: the chi of Chinese philosophy, the prana of Hinduism, the Tao of Taoism, or perhaps more likely: the Force from the Star Wars movies. George Lucas borrowed from martial arts and Eastern philosophy when creating his Jedi Order, and the Force is a direct analogy to the Japanese ki.

This concept seems to be a human universal across cultures, in fact as John Michael Greer points out in The Druid Magic Handbook, “The only languages that don’t [have a word for the life force] are the ones spoken in the industrial nations of the modern West”. It’s as if Nwyfre has been banished from modern society, which prefers to see the world as simply inert material to be used and exploited for human greed. How convenient.

“Outside the industrial West”, Greer writes, “the life force is just as much a part of life as bodies and minds are. In modern Japan, for example, people still talk about the state of their ki on a regular basis. The word for courage in Japanese is yuki, literally “active ki“, depression is fukeiki, “sluggish ki” [etc.].”

Nwyfre is not simply an idea to believe or disbelieve, however. In fact, “belief” has no part in my own approach to Druidry.As a non-theist and naturalist, I find it impossible to simply “believe” things without experiencing them myself.

Nwyfre, however, is to be experienced. Meditation, especially barefoot on the earth, is a great way to experience the flow of Nwyfre. Starting with the soles of your feet, feel them against the earth, feel the force of them pushing down and the equal force of the ground holding them up. Feel them tingle with subtle energy. And then work up, through your legs, torso, arms and head, until you are aware of your whole body being filled with Nwyfre, and then feel your own Nwyfre connecting with that flowing through the earth beneath and all around you.

It may take a while to experience anything, but even if you don’t, then you have had a nice relaxing breathing session and got some fresh air, so nothing is wasted.

The Druidry Handbook, also by Greer, contains exercises for connecting with the Solar Nwyfre, the Telluric (Earth) Nwyfre, and the Nwyfre of trees as you do your walking meditations, and I recommend getting a copy and trying them out.